Turning 10

In 1996, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was at about 4,000 and just beginning its dizzying five-year runup to more than 11,000. The United States was in the midst of the longest period of sustained economic growth on record. Wealth was being created on a scale not seen in our history. In politics, Bill Weld and John Kerry were the story, jousting in no less than seven televised face-offs. Regardless of which side you were on, it was rich and substantive political debate.

That year also marked the founding of MassINC. In its first 10 years, MassINC has sought to use its independent research and civic voice to build a new agenda for Massachusetts, one that focuses on the challenge of living the American Dream in our Commonwealth. Our work has focused on the meat and potatoes of daily life—family incomes, education, skills, and economic opportunity; cost of living; demographic change; and quality of life.

MassINC started out with a benchmark examination of income, The State of the American Dream in New England, and found that family income growth is tied to educational achievement more than ever before. The result is a growing divide in economic opportunity between those with higher education and skills and those without. In 2000, our research revealed that a stunning 1.1 million workers lacked the skills to get ahead in today’s economy. This in turned launched our New Skills for a New Economy campaign, which focuses attention on the need to create opportunities for workers to acquire these skills.

At the same time, we began to examine the cost side of the equation. In The Road Ahead, in 1998, we identified the rising cost of housing as a strategic threat to our ability to attract and retain the most skilled workforce in the nation. More recently, our work on cost of living led us to examine the finances of a graying population. We found that many families have yet to adapt to the new rules of retirement, under which personal savings and 401(k)-style plans have largely replaced traditional pensions.

We at MassINC have also sought to understand the three major demographic forces shaping our state’s future: outmigration to other states, international immigration, and the aging of our population. Of the three, only immigration is sustaining our workforce. Our work on migration in 2003, Mass.Migration, foreshadowed the last two years of overall population loss reported for the Bay State—a troubling dynamic that makes preparing for the impending Baby Boomer retirement wave all the more urgent.

All this raises questions about the quality of life in Massachusetts, and we put those questions to 1,000 residents in our 2003 survey, The Pursuit of Happiness. We found that people like living in the Commonwealth and appreciate their communities. But the cost of living is forcing many of them to make difficult decisions—whether leaving the state for somewhere less costly, or putting up with a long commute from a town where they can afford to live.

Taken as a whole, MassINC’s research over 10 years points to three key challenges for our state. First, we need to redouble efforts to build, attract, and retain the most skilled workforce in the nation—it is our fundamental comparative advantage and we risk losing it at our economic peril. Second, the affordability challenge looms large. Skilled workers cannot be lured here, and those already here cannot afford to stay. Third, the state needs to factor in cost of living as a component of its strategy for future growth and development. All our efforts to attract and nurture new industries will be for naught if the economics—and politics —of growth make it impossible for employers to expand here and employees to live here. Skills, affordability, and growth—these are the challenges before us.

In 2006, we have the opportunity to engage in the dialogue that naturally flows from the process of picking a new governor. With an open seat, all cards are tossed in the air. But even a wide-open race is no guarantee that vital issues will be addressed in a way that illuminates, rather than obscures. Matching the standard set 10 years ago by the Kerry-Weld debates will not happen by itself.

Meet the Author
At MassINC, we have decided to mark our 10th anniversary by doing our part, with partners in the media and with other civic-minded leaders, to push for a substantive discussion about the future of our state in this election year. Rather than mark the occasion with a gala dinner, we think our efforts will be put to better use by focusing greater attention on the issues that make the American Dream more accessible to the people of Massachusetts. We thank the many organizations and individuals who have already agreed to help us in this endeavor. Our Commonwealth needs it—and we hope you will join in as well.

   Ian Bowles